The trick-or-treaters have left. The Halloween decorations are coming down. Now that spooky season gives way to the countdown to Thanksgiving (if Christmas could wait its turn, we'd be much obliged), it's time to contemplate the horrors, not of supernatural or mystical origin, but horrors that come from real life or are inspired by it. In other words, welcome to awards season, where prestige cinema reigns supreme, and every week brings one or two bona fide contenders, as well as a few hopefuls that bite the dust.
In late October, two renowned auteurs delivered new works that couldn't be more different from one another. One is a sprawling Western that brings a revered work of nonfiction to the big screen, the bigger the better. The other is a lithe, genre-driven character study that adapts a French comic book, out in theaters briefly but destined to be predominantly consumed at home. Both films are linked by their clear-eyed portrayals of men with a yen for bloodletting in their DNA and the reverberations of their actions. Do these fall features pass their polygraph tests? Let's find out.
“Killers of the Flower Moon”: A bunch of white people are telling the story of the Osage Nation, and you have to wonder whether it's theirs to tell. The thought lingers like smoke from a bonfire throughout this highly anticipated movie incarnation of David Grann's 2017 best-seller, and while the lengthy answer to this burning question may not satisfy everyone, but Martin Scorsese makes an immersive, deeply felt case that he is the man for the job.
The “Raging Bull” auteur argues that the way to honor these Indigenous people, referred to in the not-so-distant past as Native Americans and in the more distant past as a geographically inaccurate term, is a shift in focus. In chronicling the insidious atrocities that befell the Osage in Oklahoma at the hands of greedy white men from 1918 to 1931, the film zeroes in an interracial marriage that became ground zero for these murders, as opposed to the stalwart agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who have more of a starring role in the book.
It's a major, but not absolute, change in perspective that turns what could have been a taut procedural into a requiem for lives lost and a culture desecrated. It's a sound decision. “Killers” buffets viewers with grief from its first frame. It unfolds as a funeral procession, a slow-moving dirge where a dark shadow looms large, engulfing just about every happy moment with the knowledge that it will all end in tears.
That it remains riveting and accessible despite the gravity of the subject matter is a testament to Scorsese's storytelling moxie, a lived-in screenplay credited to the director and Eric Roth, and Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker's ability to incorporate a plethora of moving parts into a cohesive whole. It may feel shapeless at times, but then the film literally pulls back to reveal its overall design.
At the center is Mollie Kyle (“Certain Women's” Lily Gladstone), heiress to a fortune gained by the Osage when they discovered oil beneath their land, turning them into the richest people per capita in the world. A courtship with her chauffeur, World War I vet Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads to a marriage beset by health issues (namely, Mollie's diabetes and Ernest's drinking). There's also the matter of Mollie's sisters, along with many, many other Osage tribe members, turning up dead. One by one. As Mollie sees her own health begin to mysteriously decline.
Orchestrating the years-spanning bloodbath is Ernest's uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a warm and friendly pillar of Osage County who encouraged love to flourish between Mollie and her nephew. He was also, initially unbeknownst to Mollie and her family, a cold and calculating crime lord with a plan to ensure that black gold money goes to him. He's a ruthless sociopath who gives off grandpappy vibes. A Herculean effort by the Osage to alert Uncle Sam ensues, with the squeaky-clean men from the FBI, led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons) swooping in way too late.
Covering all the bases here is a lot for any filmmaker to take on, and “Killers” does feel overwhelming on occasion. Scorsese is in no hurry. He has delivered a comprehensive, dot-every-i and cross-every-t exploration of the banality of evil and all-American avarice that clocks in at nearly three and a half hours. The pacing is hushed, more than a little sluggish at times, but you feel like you've lived with these people.
It's a hefty text, anchored by exceptional performances from the stars and an outstanding supporting cast. Gladstone is, as expected, superb, and De Niro delivers his best performance in decades. DiCaprio initially comes across as a tad too mannered, but he skillfully eases into Ernest. Perhaps the MVP here is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Barbie” earlier this year). Alternating between painterly vistas and fluid Steadicam work, the Oscar nominee delivers career-best work.
Scorsese's approach, a seamless synthesis of classicism and modernity, is rich with references as diverse as period pieces from the 1970s and Scorsese's own “GoodFellas,” going all the way back to silent cinema. Films like King Vidor's “The Crowd” spring to mind as Mollie realizes what is happening right in her backyard and inside her own home. When people say this is a “faces film,” the grammar of silent movies is probably what they mean.
Now almost 81, Scorsese continues to grapple with the legacy of his body of work by keeping his canvas as expansive as his previous dramatic feature, 2019's mob epic “The Irishman.” His latest effort is at least 20 minutes too long, but its cumulative impact is shattering all the same. It asks for our patience (and a stronger bladder than mine, as once again there is no intermission). But it behooves us to give “Killers of the Flower Moon” our full attention, because what it has to say America's history of violence, and our own complicity, gnaws at you long after that final fade to black.
“The Killer”: Being a hired gun requires much planning, nerves of steel and the temperament to sit for hours. Doing nothing. The in-between moments where a hitman is alone with his thoughts are just as important as the fraction of a second it takes to pull the trigger. This is the intriguing point of departure from which director David Fincher builds his profile of his nameless assassin, played by Michael Fassbender.
And yet “The Killer” evaporates before your eyes, undone by an obtrusive voiceover narration that undermines its sleek minimalism at nearly every turn.
The film, which reunites Fincher with his “Seven” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, takes the comic book “Le Tueur” by writer Matz (the pen name of Alexis Nolent) and artist Luc Jacamon and turns it into an exercise in style and self-deprecation for its director. It's hard to miss the parallels the Netflix release strikes between Fassbender's fastidious marksman and the dead spaces on a movie set.
“The Killer's” protagonist, a man of many aliases but of unknown origin, is monitoring his mark from across a Paris street. He dresses in a drab beige jacket and hat to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but the color of his wardrobe could also apply to the overall mood of this wafer-thin tale. How slim of a sliver is the narrative? Mr. Assassin botches the Paris job, and instead of going into hiding, he returns to his Dominican Republic abode, only to find the place ransacked and his girlfriend in a hospital bed. Cue the (meticulously planned) vengeful rampage.
That's it. That's the story. It may sound like enough to carry a two-hour feature, but what comes across, as the movie unfolds with efficiently dull precision, is how empty it is. These premises are vacant, and Fassbender, who convincingly embodies the titular role, is saddled with the sore-thumb narration, a steady stream of banalities that pour out of him like so much aural diarrhea.
And yet, “The Killer” can't be completely dismissed. Two expertly staged and executed sequences momentarily bring the movie to life and suggest the breezy popcorn fare it could have been. A nighttime mano-a-mano in the Florida home of one of the contract workers on this killer's hit list is filmed with very little lighting, but the bruising brawl, which recalls Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah's throwdown in “Kill Bill: Volume 2,” is so well-edited that you know exactly where the characters are.
The second scene in question, and this is the highlight of “The Killer,” involves a dinner at a fancy restaurant and another gun for hire, played by a platinum blond Tilda Swinton. Simply credited as The Expert, Swinton's character is refreshingly at peace with her seemingly inevitable fate, and she even throws in a profane joke involving a bear in the woods.
But once Swinton is out of the picture, “The Killer” returns to its previously scheduled programming. Tedium sets in. It goes precisely where you think it is, despite a climax that eschews mayhem for pragmatism. The film's best-known ancestor in the lone-wolf assassin subgenre is “Le Samouraï” (1967), director Jean-Pierre Melville's spartan contract killer portrait, starring a cool-as-a-cucumber Alain Delon. Not only was his character the soul of restraint; he keeps as silent as the grave, and the film was all the more effective because of it. By contrast, you keep hoping Fassbender's chatty inner voice would shut up, shut up, shut UP.
You come out of “The Killer” astonished at how a filmmaker this gifted is able to turn a story with considerable built-in appeal into something so boring. It's a mind-numbing lark that fails to leave much of an impression.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is now showing in wide release, including IMAX engagements at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura and AMC Sunset Place. “The Killer” is showing through next Thursday. Nov. 9, at The Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. It starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 10.